Improved wireless coverage is a major concern for the FCC and cellular service providers.
According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans own smart phones. And as of 2015, at least seven percent of Americans are entirely dependent on their phones for internet access because they have “neither traditional broadband service at home, nor easily available alternatives for going online other than their cell phone.”
With statistics like this, it’s becoming increasingly necessary for stronger, more accurate wireless signals. This is especially the case for emergency situations where smartphone users dial 911.
In theory, when you dial 911 from a cell phone, it should bring up a phase one or phase two location. Phase one is the location of the nearest cell tower and phase two is the exact latitude and longitude of the cell phone – the most helpful information to police and first responders. But, when you factor in your cell phone carrier and location, the information is not always accurate.
A recent Wilson Electronics case study says “unreliable [cell phone] signals can also plague first responders in urban areas. Concentrations of large concrete-and-steel buildings can create an ‘urban canyon’ effect that blocks cellular signals.” It is crucial that cellular service providers improve wireless coverage, or offer a tool that can help improve the wireless signal, so that urban canyons become less of an issue.
The Find Me 911 Coalition, an organization of diverse first responders that spans the U.S., surveyed emergency dispatchers in all 50 states and found that 82 percent do not have confidence in the location data displayed from wireless calls. Wireless coverage is often so spotty that information provided to 911 dispatchers is usually inaccurate.
If you’re calling from inside a building, the 911 dispatcher usually only receives your phase one location. If that building has multiple floors, it’s most likely up to the caller to provide the exact location, which can be difficult during an emergency situation.
An investigation in Lee Country, FL, by Call for Action, an international nonprofit network of consumer hotlines, found that 80 percent of 911 calls came from cell phones.
Call for Action also tested three of the main cell phone companies’ accuracy in pinpointing locations. The investigators called 911 from inside a local dispatch center. While the Sprint and Verizon phones showed the phase one location (the nearest cell tower), the AT&T phone was unable to gain a signal at all so the 911 call was never made.
Once Call for Action stepped outside the building to try the calls again, both Sprint and Verizon brought up their exact location, while AT&T showed the dispatcher that the phone was a mile and a half away from its exact location. The experiment performed by Call for Action illustrated just how important it is for cellular service providers to make improved wireless coverage a real priority.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 64 percent of the daily 400,000 calls to 911 centers are made indoors. This disparity can prove dangerous for 911 callers who need immediate help or are unable to speak and provide their exact locations.
The lack of consistent accuracy has pushed the Federal Communications Commission to set new guidelines for cell phone companies. The new rules require cell phone carriers to provide an exact location within 50 meters for at least 40 percent of cell phone calls by 2017 and 80 percent within the next five years.
With the deadline approaching, many carriers are looking into expanding their reach by adding or enhancing network technologies. Carriers like Verizon have started building new cell towers in locations with weak signals despite pushback from the community members in these areas who don’t want a tower so close to their homes.
Both the FCC and cell phone companies are now placing their focus on getting more accurate and improved wireless signals inside buildings. T-Mobile, the third largest cellular service provider, has struggled with its network coverage outside of major cities and indoors for years. The company is now offering a way to change that. T-Mobile now provides customers with CellSpot as an option for improved wireless coverage.
CellSpot is a low-power wireless radio that provides up to 3,000 square feet of 4G cell coverage indoors. This personal mini cell tower operates on a lower-band wireless spectrum, which allows it to travel farther, and through obstacles like walls, more easily.
T-Moblie is not the only carrier to take advantage of this technology. AT&T began offering a similar device back in 2010 called MicroCell.
Other than the annoyance of spotty cell coverage, the inaccurate locations given to 911 dispatchers could have dire consequences. Improved wireless coverage will not only make phones more efficient, but police departments and first responders nationwide will be able to better serve their communities.
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